Much is made of the rivalry between Vallabhbhai Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru for prime ministership – a debate that often overlooks just how popular Nehru was among the masses of India. Patel himself told American journalist Vincent Sheean at a massively attended Congress rally in Mumbai, “They come for Jawahar, not for me.”
After Saturday’s massive win for the Bharatiya Janata Party in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election, though, Nehru seems to have a challenger. Speaking at a post-results press conference, BJP president Amit Shah claimed, “Modi has emerged as the most popular [Indian] leader since independence.”
Modi, the new Nehru
While comparisons between Indira Gandhi and Modi have been made for some time now, Shah took it one step further. Modi had even outstripped Nehru, he claimed implicitly.
For any watcher of Indian history, this is a bold claim. In the pantheon of India’s founding fathers, Nehru ranks second only to Mohandas Gandhi. So unchallenged was Nehru’s power that it is often described as the “Nehruvian consensus”: the vision that is almost single-handedly responsible for building the post-colonial republic.
While a full historical appraisal of Amit Shah’s boast remains to be made, on raw numbers, the BJP president’s arrow isn’t that far off the mark. On votes and political charisma, Modi’s mass appeal is truly on course to reach the heights that at one time only Nehru could lay claim to.
2014’s small win
Narendra Modi’s 2014 Lok Sabha win, while commendable, pales when compared to previous elections. In fact, Modi’s was the smallest vote share ever to win a simple majority in the lower house of India’s Parliament.
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Far from beating Nehru, Modi in 2014 trailed the Indian National Congress vote share even in the post-Emergency 1977 Lok Sabha election, when Indira Gandhi crashed to defeat winning only 154 seats.
However, that doesn’t mean Modi has fallen out from the race.
Since 2014, Narendra Modi has used the post of prime minister and the vast powers of the Union government to push his political appeal.
To maybe truly appreciate Shah’s claim, it is instructive to compare vote shares of the Congress in Uttar Pradesh and the BJP’s 2017 win in the state.
In Uttar Pradesh, as it now stands, the BJP’s 2017 vote share has outstripped every performance of the Congress in each Uttar Pradesh state election it fought under the leadership of Indira Gandhi. Moreover, the BJP’s 2017 vote share is higher than even the Congress’ in 1962 – the final Uttar Pradesh election the Grand Old Party fought under Nehru’s leadership.
This is no small achievement. One-sixth of India’s population lives in Uttar Pradesh. Apart from the sheer weight of numbers, there is the political capital the state carries. It is hardly a coincidence that every prime minister to command a majority in the Lok Sabha on his/her own has won an election from Uttar Pradesh. Even Narendra Modi, a Gujarati, abandoned his state and chose to represent the Uttar Pradesh city of Varanasi in Parliament. The importance of the scale of the 2017 Uttar Pradesh win for Modi’s stature can, therefore, hardly be emphasised enough.
And it is not only Uttar Pradesh. The Bharatiya Janata Party is slowly but surely taking over much of the Indian Union. Take a look at this map.
1967 was not a good year for the Congress. It lost power in six states leading to the map (left) above. This was just three years after Nehru died and was at a time when the vast majority of India’s electorate had seen the Congress’ role in the freedom movement themselves. In spite of the reverses of 1967, in every which way, the Congress was a powerhouse and would dominate national politics for the next four decades.
In 2017, the BJP is in government in 15 states. In 1967, the Congress ruled 10. That the BJP in 2017 – with less than three years in office for Modi as prime minister – has overtaken the Congress in 1967 is, therefore, remarkable. Moreover, this is at a time when the BJP is on its way up. With the Opposition in disarray, the saffron spread of the BJP is only set to increase. Elections in Karnataka, for example, scheduled in 2018 have the Bharatiya Janata Party as a clear front-runner, pitted against a bedraggled Congress. Modi’s march to Nehrudom will only continue.
The Modivian consensus
Nehru used his unchallenged power to fashion the new republic. The Congress was a largely conservative party, but so popular was Nehru that a resignation threat was enough for most Congress right-wingers to fall in line since many of them owed their seats, power and privilege to Nehru’s personal connection with the voters.
In return, Nehru got his way with policy. During his time, the office of prime minister clearly overshadowed the party. He was able to pilot progressive legislation like the Hindu Code bills, bringing modern Western law to replace Hinduism’s age-old customs. The Nehruvian state aggressively pushed secularism, trying to make India’s Muslim minority feel relatively safe after the turmoil of Partition.
Narendra Modi, on the other hand, is ideologically a Right-wing conservative, his ideology fashioned by his decades as a long-time Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh worker. A Nehru-like level of power and influence might mean Modi will affect large-scale changes that yank the country sharply to the Right.
He has, in fact, already kept a razor-sharp focus on the issues that matter to Hindutva. In this election, for example, the BJP did not bother to field a single Muslim from Uttar Pradesh – the victory was purely due to the party’s Hindu vote bank. Moreover, as prime minister, Modi has made sure to project a muscular Hindu identity. He is not shy of mixing pujas and politicking.
As Modi approaches Nehruvian levels of popularity, this very popularity will probably mean the end of Nehru’s India.
Note: An earlier version of this article had mentioned incorrectly that the BJP is currently in government in 12 states. The correct figure is 15. The article has been updated accordingly.